I, Cinna (The Poet), Unicorn Theatre

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Review by Melinda Haunton

One man, at a table, with a laptop. And, it will emerge, a kettle, a chicken due for disembowelling, a mobile phone and more. He’s Cinna (the poet), and he’s terrified. There are rumblings outside in the streets, Caesar and Brutus and Mark Antony. Change is in the wind, the Republic may fall. Cinna’s a poet, and he wants us to be poets too. He’s also a very modern man, and he knows we are watching. Riots flash onto a screen behind him. Breaking news updates are fast, uneasy and familiar – not all are straight out of Shakespeare’s play, but enough are that they echo.

The Unicorn Theatre’s new one-man show, I, Cinna (the Poet), written by and starring Tim Crouch, packs a lot into its hour-plus run time. It’s highly interactive (everyone gets a notebook, there’s to and fro about words to describe the prime minister, and a bit of a grammar lesson about the roles of words in speech), but it is also a performance. Crouch works us through the tragedy of Julius Caesar with a light touch that keeps the action flowing. Cinna is frustrated as a poet, feeling impotent as the Roman Republic crumbles, but his own views on Caesar are swayed by Antony’s eulogy. There’s inspiration in watching words make a difference against swords.

There’s also a demonstration of the power of words in the whole structure of the piece. We meet Cinna as a character who “lives in brackets”, someone you can extract from the action without changing the play. But Crouch plays him vividly enough that by the time we close by writing in our notebooks something under the doomy heading “The Death of Cinna the Poet”, we have thoughts and feelings enough to fill pages. That writing task could be a long five minutes if Crouch hadn’t warmed up his audience and engaged our emotions. It’s a tribute to how successful this show is as creative inspiration that a sticky press night audience of adults and critics scribbled without stopping.

So I want to say I love I, Cinna. I did love it. But the buts that I have about it are real. I love the way Crouch plays with anachronism in using modern conveniences like app alerts to bring Shakespeare’s play to life, but it feels like a missed opportunity that we are never reminded that this isn’t simply a play about history. The words we’re hearing to describe the historical fact of an assassination are the words of another poet, sixteen hundred years after Julius Caesar. Forget crediting Shakespeare, he doesn’t exactly need the profile, but given that Cinna’s poetry is at the heart of his angst and character, how sad not to give that other poet a nod.

That background is probably covered by teachers bringing their classes to the show. I hope so. I hope even more that my other unease is addressed. Cinna is a romantic about his Republic, and early on he talks about how it makes everyone an equal citizen. My mental note (“Huh, not if you’re a woman or a slave”) was probably pedantry, and I’m trying to give that up. But Cinna makes further casual references to slavery, to prepositions as little hardworking slave words, to Caesar’s possible crown rendering other men slaves… where’s the flick of awareness that many men already are? Where’s the acknowledgement that his audience may not identify with Cinna in his free privilege? There’s none. Given how much Cinna breaks the fourth wall to interact with his audiences, I found that an oddly alienating decision.

I can feel the book group/lesson plan question that arises. “What do Cinna’s references to slavery tell us about his experiences and character?” I can imagine the productive discussion that comes out of that, too. But I’d have loved that to be a part of the play, not the post-game analysis.

I, Cinna (the Poet) is showing at the Unicorn until 29 Feb. Tickets from £10.

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